Why Put These Issues on the Emergency List?

Gov. Rick Perry as the keynote speaker at The Annual Texas Rally for Life at the Capitol on  January 22, 2011.
Gov. Rick Perry as the keynote speaker at The Annual Texas Rally for Life at the Capitol on January 22, 2011.

Abortion politics is back on center stage in Texas, with Gov. Rick Perry putting legislation that failed twice in the last four years on his list of top priorities for the Texas Legislature.

It’s up there with voter ID, state support for a balanced federal budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, eminent domain and a ban on sanctuary cities.

Why?

Timing is one reason — it’s harder for opponents to stop something at the start of a session. And there’s an advantage to taking care of single-subject bills before the big stuff — like the $15 billion to $27 billion budget shortfall and redistricting — eat up the legislative bandwidth.

But there’s more to this than timing. The governor is setting the agenda, using the early part of the session to serve up red meat to conservatives — feeding the base. As a side benefit, he’s also crowding out some of the headlines about the dire finances.

“We can’t afford to give up the good fight until the day Roe v. Wade is nothing but a shameful footnote in our nation’s history books,” Perry said at an anti-abortion rally at the Capitol last weekend, when he announced that an abortion/ultrasound bill would go on the “emergency items” agenda. Texas lawmakers can’t consider legislation during the first 60 days of a session unless the governor declares that legislation an emergency. (Ignore the standard definition of that word: there is no standard of urgency or need required, simply the governor’s say-so.)

The bill would require a doctor to perform an ultrasound on a pregnant woman and display the images where she can see them shortly before an abortion is done. In addition, doctors would be required to amplify the fetal heartbeats so that the pregnant woman can hear them.

Politicians often design their strategies around their most recent fights.

Two years ago, supporters of the legislation requiring voters to present photo IDs waited until the end of the session to bring it up for consideration. Democrats in the Texas House killed the legislation by slowing consideration of everything that was in line in front of the voter ID bill, which pushed it past the deadline, and it never came to a vote.

This time, Perry put the legislation on the emergency list, and the state Senate passed it Wednesday night and sent it to the House.

The same fate befell what’s generally known in Austin as the “sonogram bill.” This is the third time the legislation has been proposed. In 2007, it was passed by the Senate and was up for consideration at the end of the session in the House when the legislative clock ran out. In 2009, it failed when time expired.

Eminent domain legislation died on the same 2009 House calendar, stuck in the queue as the deadline passed after days of protracted debate over mostly uncontested legislation — a tactic called “chubbing” — that braked legislative work to a near halt.

It should come as no surprise that the Republicans are in a hurry this time. Opponents can talk for weeks, and there will still be time to pass the bills.

Two years ago, the list of emergency items was boring by comparison: hurricane response, windstorm insurance reform, state school improvement and criminal justice financing. Perry put property-tax relief for elderly homeowners on the 2007 list in order to correct an oversight from a 2006 tax bill.

The five issues he picked for this session are all conservative candy. They’ll get Republican lawmakers accustomed to party-line votes right away. And bringing the list in early gives conservative lawmakers a chance to work before opponents can use late-session parliamentary tricks to plug the pipeline.

Perry’s critics are riled up, scratching at him for not including on his list a state budget that’s dripping in red ink. Redistricting can’t really get going until the detailed census numbers are available, weeks from now. There’s no disagreement, however, that the state is short of what it needs to keep doing the things it’s doing — the fight there has been over whether it’s apocalyptic or just really horrible.

The proposals from the House and the Senate each cut around one dollar in six from the current budget and ignore growth in population and inflation. Perry and others argue that lawmakers are already hard at work on that and couldn’t finish their work in the first 60 days of the session even if they wanted to. It’s too hard.

So it’s not an emergency.

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